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Island of the chimps

By Ronald Musoke

Love, war, and peace at Ngamba Island sanctuary

It is 9.30 in the morning and the Water Front beach at Entebbe is just warming up. Our party, comprising 17 foreign tourists and seven Ugandans – all wrapped up in our bright orange life jackets, are on our way to the Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary.  Before powering the tour boat, the captain gives us a short brief. His name is George Nsamba, he says, as he also introduces his assistant, Martin.  Ngamba Island where we are headed is about 23km away and it would take us about 45 minutes to reach it.  Nsamba then powers the two Yamaha outboard engines of the olive-green tour boat and our group is on its way.

Lake Victoria is a calm bed of blue and empty water – save for the odd canoe carrying fishermen in the distance or another that appears to be desperately overloaded with people and merchandise. Soon we are cruising at about 60 nautical miles per hour with only occasional bumps, a gaggle of fish eagles and serene-looking white water ducks gliding by.

The chimpanzee sanctuary we are visiting on Ngamba Island is one of 24 in Africa which provides rescued chimpanzees with food, medicare, security, and social companionship.  Twenty minutes into our journey, Nsamba knocks out the power in the engines for an important message – we are soon crossing the equator; the imaginary line that divides the northern and southern hemispheres.  “You will not see the line with your naked eyes unless you have a GPS device like me,” Nsamba says.   Soon enough, Nsamba tells us, we are entering the Southern Hemisphere. Then, after another 15 minutes ride, we dock at the Ngamba Island.  Ngamba is about 100 acres in size (about nine standard football fields) and is part of the Koome group of islands administered by Mukono District.

About 95 acres of the island is a thick rain forest while five acres have been left for camp quarters for staff and researchers.  There are also camping and lodging facilities for paying visitors who wish to spend a night at the sanctuary.  The island used to be inhabited by fisher folk until 1998 when it was acquired by the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust (CSWCT), a non-governmental organisation that was established 17 years ago to provide a safe haven for chimpanzees rescued from poachers and traders.   The sanctuary was started in partnership with local and international conservation organisations in response to the declining number of apes in Uganda that is slowly pushing them into extinction.

As staff of the sanctuary welcomes us, they also issue some handy safety rules, especially on what to do in case there is an emergency.   Although they are highly social animals that often live in communities of 20-100 individuals, we are told, chimpanzees occasionally fight and the fierce battles can sometimes spill over into the people’s space. There is, therefore, a designated emergency assembly point for humans to seek refuge. There are also designated litter points, and even smoking points.

Innocent Ampaire, a caregiver at the sanctuary, says they have a personal relationship with each and every chimpanzee.

This is done to make sure that each member’s needs are taken care of. We soon discover what this means during the early afternoon feeding session.

Just like some people behave when food is served, it is survival for the fittest at Ngamba. But the smartest also win some. As the powerful bully the weaker ones for better positions to catch food which is being thrown at them across the high electric fence by a feeder standing on the viewing platform about 20ft above the ground, the chimps jostle for cucumber, oranges, cassava tubers, Jack fruit, and water melon.

As the more powerful grab as more fruits as possible from others, the weak make ear-piercing noises or put on a show of sulking, and soon get thrown a portion from the caregivers.Some like the oddly named Rambo; a weak specimen who opts to step away from the food fight because he knows he is so low in hierarchy that he would never get anything, are thankful when the caregiver throws him a handful of oranges, sliced pieces of jackfruit, cucumber and cassava.

As a visitor, it is difficult to tell one chimpanzee from the other. But this seems all too easy for Ampaire and other caregivers who give quick details about the history of any chimpanzee in question.

Every chimpanzee at the sanctuary has a diary where their personal details are recorded from the time they arrive on the island.  “We try to understand each one of them,” Ampaire says when I ask him how he is able to identify the subtleties which exist among the group.

Most of the chimpanzees are either orphans rescued after their parents were killed by poachers or survivors of trafficking. Since it was founded in 1998, Ngamba sanctuary has been host to no more than 50 chimpanzees at a time.

Emotional visit

Conservation experts say chimpanzees share up to 98.6% of DNA with human beings. This means that they are just like humans. Visiting them at Ngamba leaves you with mixed emotions.

For instance, each chimpanzee has their own unique personality. This feeling is double because every chimpanzee on the island has a name, usually, human. So it is easy to see the chimp politics, love, life, and death struggles as almost human. This feeling is deepened because we arrived at a historic moment in the chimpanzees’ life.

For the first time since it was founded, the chimpanzees have not had a leader, or alpha male, for three years since the last one died abruptly in 2013.   Unlike some animal communities where physical strength is the deciding factor in leader selection, chimpanzees rate potential leaders on age, physical fitness, and aggressiveness, skill at fighting, ability to form coalitions, intelligence, and other personality traits. Communication skills and social interactions, and good looks are important.

The last leader, Mika, probably had the best of all these. Even among sanctuary staff, he appears to have been a favourite at Ngamba and everybody tends to talk about him with fondness. He is mostly remembered for his exceptional organisational and leadership skills.   “Despite the clout he wielded, he was not as aggressive and he never gave hard time to the caregivers at Ngamba,” Ampaire says.

Before Mika, the chimps lived in two splinter groups; one for juveniles and the other for adults. Somehow, Mika managed to bring the two groups together under his leadership in 2006.

Nicknamed the “City Boy” because of his smartness, Mika had been rescued from the Akef Egyptian Circus in 1998 and was one of the pioneers of the sanctuary when it opened the same year.  Chimpanzees can live for up to 50 years but Mika was just 22-years old, literally in his prime, when he died. This means he had not had time to groom a successor and his death left political confusion on the island.  One pretender to the throne, Eddy, tried to assume power but this only lasted a short while. By the time we visited, the power struggle was between Umutama and Kalema. According to Ampaire, Umutama was holding a slight edge over Kalema, thanks to his leadership skills.  There is also Mawa, a rebel of sorts, who rejected first Mika’s leadership and that of others. Mawa showed his disaffection by running away from the bigger group—something which did not go well with the rest. He remains ostracized by the others and is beaten whenever he tries to join the big group.

Ampaire says Mawa’s problems are partly a result of his behavior when he was powerful in the community.  He was brutal, especially towards, the young chimps. Now they have grown bigger and use every chance to revenge.   Mawa had a buddy called Asega.

“Each time Mawa tried to escape; Asega would follow his friend,” Ampaire says. They are not friends anymore. But the itch to escape has not left Asega. He always appears uncomfortable whenever he is with the rest in the forest and each time he goes out, he tries to run away.   To keep them from trouble, Mawa and Asega are kept in a holding facility while the rest are away in the forest. The facility—a bedroom of sorts— is built with strong steel bars of a prison but has comfortable homelike hammocks hanging from the roof of the facility.  There is a third chimp in the holding facility, Oketch, whose story is sad and has nothing to do with Asega and Mawa. Oketch is sick – suffering from a kidney problem, and the caregivers keep him in the holding facility for his own safety.

Moments of happiness

There are happy moments among the chimps as when a mother called ‘Africa’ gave birth to a male baby on March 27. The sanctuary management was thrown into confusion. Although there is plenty of sex, breeding is forbidden on the island and females are on contraceptives throughout the year. Africa was only the second chimpanzee to give birth on the island in the last 17 years.  “There was a lot of excitement in the group,” says Lily Ajarova, the executive director of CSWCT, “They were so happy to have the baby around them. Everyone wanted to keep the baby; we feared he could be harmed.”   The baby chimp was named ‘Survivor’ but that is temporary until a proper name comes along.  Martha Nansamba, the sanctuary’s marketing officer told The Independent that soon DNA tests will be done on all the mature male chimpanzees to try and identify who Survivor’s father is.

Ajarova told The Independent that the commitment the caregivers invest in understanding such minute details of behaviour of chimpanzees has made Ngamba to be singled out as a model sanctuary on the continent.

She says the challenge for her staff is that since the apes keep growing in age, size and group, very many things change along the way.   She says over the last 17 years, the sanctuary has done well in saving chimpanzees that have come from countries such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, South Sudan and even Russia.    “We have achieved that (securing the welfare of chimpanzees) but of course we have to maintain this status,” she says.   The story is the same across much of equatorial Africa where chimpanzees once roamed freely in their millions. The chimpanzee belt stretched from southern Senegal through Central Africa to western Tanzania.   Chimpanzees are difficult to count because, although they live in groups, they are rarely in the same place at the same time and, to the human eye, look quite alike. However, scientists estimate that today, there are only about 300,000 chimpanzees.

The primary threats to chimpanzees in recent years have been; habitat destruction (deforestation), logging, hunting, and disease. All these are blamed on the rapid human population growth. Conservationists fear this could destroy tourism activities that directly depend on wild ape populations like gorillas, baboons and chimpanzee.

Scientists estimate that Uganda has about 5000 chimpanzees in the wild, mainly in the western Uganda Rwenzori mountain area, according to the last population carried out in the country in 2002. Ajarova says the population could even have slightly gone up over the last decade especially in the protected areas.

The relatively small numbers are because chimpanzees become sexually mature after 10 years of age and need between 5-6 years between births. Scientists say this is one of the main reasons they are a conservation concern globally. Unfortunately, as humans encroach on forests more and more, conflict between them and chimpanzees increase. Ajarova says there is also the headache of securing the apes that live on privately owned forests.

“Our worry remains convincing the owners of privately owned natural forests where a sizeable number of chimpanzees live,” she says “The owners of the private forests do not see the importance of protecting them.”

She says this is mainly because at the moment chimpanzees and human beings are struggling for space to survive, hence the rapid rise in the number of human-wildlife conflicts in the districts of Hoima and Kibaale.

“Forests have become small patches as opposed to the continuous forests in which chimpanzee enjoyed living many decades ago.”

In response, the CSWCT works with the National Forestry Authority (NFA) and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to educate local people who interact with the chimpanzees on peaceful co-existence.

CSWCT has established a field office based in the mid-western district of Hoima to help communities living alongside chimpanzee habitats learn about the value and benefit of co-existing with the apes.  The trust has also been piloting alternative livelihoods (bee keeping, tourism and mushroom growing) for private forest owners. Ajarova says studies have already been done which show that this strategy can work.

“In the villages where we are working, the villagers are cooperative.”  Still, Ajarova says more resources need to be committed into this strategy.  As you come back to the mainland from Ngamba, however, there is some satisfaction that these rescued chimpanzees are now safe from human torture. But you also cannot help feeling sad that they are not able to leave naturally because of limited space.

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